Friday, July 18, 2008

On Working Hard

A few weeks ago, one reader asked me to post more stories about the Indiana Academy, to try to demystify the concept a little bit. Since news is a little slow on the gifted education front during the summer, I'll post something about it now.

The Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities is a residential school for gifted high school juniors and seniors. It is located on the campus of Ball State University and enrolls approximately 300 students. It's one of about a dozen similar public schools around the country (though it's one of only a very few that also emphasize the humanities. Most specialize in math and science, because these are seen as "hard" subjects that you can be gifted in. I am continually amazed how few people think the humanities are actually difficult -- done right they are!)

Anyway, my husband and I were talking recently about whether we would ever consider such an option for our son, Jasper. My husband actually lived at home for part of college, so the idea of having a child leave even earlier, at 15 or 16, seems foreign. Plus, he reminded me, my "normal" high school in South Bend produced a number of successful people in the grade above me, and mine. He's met one woman who got her chemistry PhD at Stanford, one who is getting a PhD at Harvard, has heard of a guy in my class who is now a doctor, etc. All of which is true.

But the occasional bright student does not change the culture of a school. The most fundamental difference for me between South Bend Clay High School, and the Indiana Academy, is that the Indiana Academy had way higher expectations. It taught me to work hard for something -- to throw myself into it -- when success was not guaranteed. This intellectual risk-taking is almost completely absent from the American educational experience for bright children today, and that is a shame.

I've been thinking about that lately, because I am deeply involved right now in an almost fantastically hard task. I have recently taken on a book project (another collaboration) that must be written in its entirety in about 5 weeks. So I'm cranking out about 2,000 publishable words per day, in addition to my other writing projects.

But here's the thing -- it has never occurred to me that it might be "too much." And, indeed, the darn thing is pretty much done a week early. I have a lot of confidence in my ability to throw myself into something and make it happen for a simple reason: that's what I did at the Indiana Academy.

My first semester junior year, I floundered around a bit. I didn't know how to work -- how to set goals and execute against them. But I figured it out. My senior year, I felt that to get into a good college as a not terribly well "hooked" kid from Indiana, I really needed to stand out. So I decided to get straight A's while taking our AP chemistry and AP biology classes simultaneously, plus multi-variable calculus and various humanities class, writing long features for our school newspaper, applying to 7 colleges that all had their own application forms, etc. I really didn't sleep much. I was in the lab a lot, and drawing on every bit of math ability I had to figure out my chemistry equations and the like. But it all wound up working out. I got 5s on all my AP tests, got my A's, got into every college I applied to, won several writing contests. And as these things started happening, my view of myself started to change, too. I had the ability to figure out a situation and make things happen. This does remarkable things for your confidence.

At Clay I never had to work. Really. It's not just that I was the top student in my class, because I often was at the Indiana Academy, too. It's just that what was required to be the top student was more. In theory, all of us could have failed a test (and, indeed, on some of our AP chemistry tests, the top score in the class would be in the 70's; the class median was a B, and to get an A you had to be more than a standard deviation above the mean). That would never have happened at Clay. The tests and mastery level required was set so that someone was inevitably getting a 100. If that someone was inevitably you, then you didn't have to work hard. Simple as that.

We do no favors to bright kids by making things easy for them. The Indiana Academy didn't make things easy -- and that was its biggest gift to me. I'll write more on this subject later, because there are many things that happened at the Indiana Academy to make a good academic environment, but that was the big one.


kc said...

The problem with this view of the academy is that lots of us were not anywhere near as successful as you there. And it's not as simple as saying well, those people couldn't handle the academics, they shouldn't have been there. I know lots of people who did pretty damn well at the academy, but didn't get accepted to any of those goddamn fancy schools, including myself. And I know a lot of people who did well but ended up completely worn out, sick of school and study and determined to party as much as possible in college to make up for lost time. I still think the academy was a special environment, and one that did a lot of good things for people, but its not all good. Far from it.

Kim Moldofsky said...

Congrats on finishing the book-and a week early, no less.

I touched on this issue yesterday at MOMformation (
) and it's a topic that I hope to write revisit in he coming weeks. I look forward to reading about your thoughts on hard work.

LaRita said...

I was the one who asked you to post more about your experiences there, and as the parent of a new Academy junior this year, I think you for reassuring me that he is in the right place. I look forward to hearing about more of your observations and experiences.

And now, a different request. All 3 of our kids are very intelligent. While our son at the Academy is the one who seems the most highly gifted, our daughter looks like she may not be far behind him. Being a girl and far more social, her abilities manifest themselves differently than our son's so it's really hard to tell at this point what her abilities truly are.

We are now struggling with a junior high school that has gone from ability-divided classes in math and science, back to the general mixed-ability classes. I've spoken to some other parents who have seen a real drop in the quality of math classes as well. I really question whether this sort of class structure can adequately meet the needs of either the gifted OR the struggling students, but I don't know how to present my case to the principal.

I believe that you've raised this topic in the past, but I'd appreciate hearing about research or even case histories that might help us stress to him the benefits of ability-based class divisions, and the drawbacks of NOT having classes divided by ability at a middle-school level.

It may not be politically correct to label the students' abilities, but political correctness is not always the best for the the students. Grouping by ability doesn't necessarily make them feel less intelligent - it may instead provide a setting that is more at the speed and level that helps them learn to their potential.